The Color Printer Dilemma: Just How Fancy?

With so many options available, think carefully about what you need

Having the right printer can be a matter of life or death. So say members of a 1995 expedition to clear 1,400 pounds of trekkers' debris off the slopes of Mt. Everest. The amateur climbers carted three Compaq Computer Corp. notebooks and three-pound Canon BJC-70 printers up 18,000 feet, so that each member could carry updated climbing plans. Amid high-altitude wooziness, says team member Guy Johnson, "you don't want to depend on memory."

Most of us won't make it to Everest this year. But anyone who uses a PC should have a printer--preferably a color model. The choices in inkjets range from entry-level products such as the 1000 Color Jetprinter from Lexmark International Inc., which costs as little as $100, up to fancy workgroup models such as the $1,700 Hewlett-Packard Co. DeskJet 1600CN. With so many options, think carefully about what you need.

Many shoppers, wisely, aim squarely at the middle of the market. Inkjets fall into price bands about $100 apart, and you get what you pay for. Dirt-cheap machines are slow and lack crispness but may be adequate for kids. Models for $200 to $300 are a lot better, especially for moderate volumes of black-and-white or color printing. For $400 and up, you get a workhorse that will crank out thousands of pages, print lifelike pictures, and, in some cases, double as a scanner and fax--perfect for a home office.

MOVING UP. For most people, BUSINESS WEEK doesn't recommend entry-level printers. Aside from their slower speed--generally three to four pages per minute in monochrome and several minutes per page in color--these models have only one print head, which limits their flexibility and quality. You have to switch between a black-ink cartridge for printing letters and a three-color cartridge for graphics--and settle for a muddy black made by combining the three color inks. Over time, the cost of the inks used to simulate black can outweigh a cheap printer's price.

For just another $100, you move up to a much classier set of machines. Models such as the HP DeskJet 672C, Canon BJC-4300, and new NEC Corp. SuperScript 750C all have two print heads, one for color and the other for black, and churn along at four to six pages per minute. The Canon offers the best print resolution (in dots of ink per inch) of the three, while the NEC is the speediest.

The most versatile inkjets cost $300 and up. At that price, the quality of black printing approaches that attainable with low-cost monochrome laser printers--plus you get color for spicing up documents or printing flashy overheads. The Epson Stylus Color 600, the Canon BJC-620, and HP's DeskJet 694C are all dependable choices in this range.

But none of these are the tiptop picks. The leading selections for color inkjets are Epson's $400 Stylus Color 800, which beats the competition in speed and resolution, and the new $350 HP DeskJet 722C. We also like Canon's $450 BJC-7000, which uses as many as seven inks to add richness of color. It lays down a clear "primer," or coating, to make the page water-resistant. But all that takes a toll on speed. Indeed, none of these models is really a match for heavy workloads. If that is your need, the HP DeskJet 1600CN boasts built-in networking and handles higher volume.

Want to set up a digital darkroom? There are several printers for you. The top-rated product is HP's $500 PhotoSmart printer, which knocks out rich images on special glossy paper stock up to 8 1/2 by 11 inches in size. The $500 Epson Stylus Photo gets lower marks for image quality but uses cheaper stock and also doubles as a conventional inkjet by printing on plain paper. Neither, however, was designed for plain printing.

You can also buy general purpose inkjets from HP and Canon that come with special inks and papers for printing photos. But as with all photo printers, output quality depends on what you're printing. Low-resolution images grabbed off the Internet or snapped in a digital camera can look grainy. Supplies for photo printers are also expensive.

BUSINESS WEEK also checked out so-called multifunction devices, sometimes called "hydras," or all-in-ones. These combine a printer, fax, and scanner in the same box. And you can force them to perform as copiers by scanning and then printing documents. A year ago, most hydras were monochrome. Now, you can get color models such as the $600 HP OfficeJet 600, the $550 Canon MultiPass C5000, and the $1,000 Brother MFC-7000FC, all of which sport color scanning, too.

COOL SWAP. What if you're not tied to an office? Some road warriors like Citizen America Corp.'s tiny $500 PN60i, which you might mistake for a three-hole punch. Battery-powered and weighing just over a pound, it prints in color on paper and transparencies and can spit out two pages per minute. Canon's alternative, the new BJC-80, is about the size of a notebook PC and weighs in at three pounds but costs only $300 and can print up to 4 1/2 pages per minute.

One cool feature on the BJC-80: You can swap out the print head for a $99 scanner head and use the device as a mobile color scanner. When Johnson and his fellow climbers head back to Everest next year for more debris, that's another feature they can use on the fly.

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